Information use in foraging flocks of songbirds: no evidence for social transmission of patch quality
© 2020 Animals use behavioural cues from others to make decisions in a variety of contexts. There is growing evidence, from a range of taxa, that information about the locations of food patches can spread through a population via social connections. However, it is not known whether information about their quality transmits similarly. We studied foraging behaviour in a population of wild songbirds with known social associations and tested whether flock members use social information about the profitability of patches to inform their foraging decisions. We provided artificial patches (ephemeral bird feeders) that appeared identical but were either profitable (contained food) or unprofitable (contained no food). If information about patch profitability spreads via social associations, we predicted that empty feeders would only be sampled by individuals that are less connected to each other than expected by chance. In contrast, we found that individuals recorded at empty feeders were more closely associated with each other than predicted by a null model simulating random arrival of individuals, mirroring a pattern of increased connectedness among individuals recorded at full feeders. We then simulated arrival under network-based diffusion of information and found that the observed pattern at both full and empty feeders matched predictions derived from this post hoc model. Our results suggest that foraging songbirds use social cues only about the location of potential food sources, but not their profitability. These findings agree with the hypothesis that individuals balance the relative economic costs of using different information, where the costs of personally sampling a patch upon arrival is low relative to the cost of searching for patches. This study extends previous work on information spread through animal social networks, by suggesting important links between how individuals use information at different stages of the acquisition process and the emerging patterns of patch use at the level of the population.